October 16, 2006

Lone Pine Dispatch. 2.

Following up on his first dispatch, Brian Darr looks back to the Lone Pine Film Festival.

Lone Pine Film Festival

Spending Columbus Day, a.k.a. Indigenous Peoples Day, weekend attending a film festival comprised mostly of Westerns may strike you as a tad unseemly given these films' long, well-documented and usually not-so-pretty history of representing images of Native Americans to mass audiences. While at the festival, I tried to keep this history in mind, as I always have while exploring the genre. It seems Western film treatments of the original inhabitants of this continent usually fall into one of a few categories. Some films present them as morally and culturally inferior villains out of a dime novel, others as noble savages requiring the aid and protection from "good guy" whites against "bad guy" whites or "evil" rival tribes who mean to do them harm. And whether or not Native Americans are central to a film's themes, or just used as a war-whooping plot device to endanger the white characters, it's been rare for much more than perfunctory research to go into lending authenticity to their portrayals.

Then there are the Westerns in which Native Americans' unacknowledged absence can seem like a clue to genocide. The Lonely Man, starring Jack Palance as a reformed gunslinger trying to reconcile with his embittered son (Anthony Perkins) by teaching him to capture mustangs, could be seen as an example of the latter. A black-and-white oater with Oedipal echoes, it illustrates the toll frontier life took on white settler families, but does it without raising the specter of the civilization formerly occupying the land. Stage to Tuscon, like many Westerns set in the Southwest, has no Indian characters but its cast, in support of Rod Cameron, Wayne Morris and Kay Buckley's juvenile love triangle, is seasoned with a few Chicanos.

Randolph Scott Seven Men From Now, another festival film in which Inyo County stands in for Arizona, uses encounters with Chiricahua Apaches to move the plot along, but ascribes to the Randolph Scott hero a perspective on their extermination that makes for an interesting contrast against the most enduring cinematic Indian fighter, Ethan Edwards of The Searchers (originally released in 1956, the same year as Seven Men From Now). Where John Ford and John Wayne portray Edwards as an unquestionably, virulently racist figure, a brief encounter with the US Cavalry reveals Scott's Ben Stride to be a very different sort of protagonist. When a lieutenant (Stuart Whitman) warns him of the dangers posed by Chiricahuas on his intended route, Stride feels he's overestimating the threat of a band so devastated that they're reduced to eating horses, and he breaks his usual silence to say so, rather caustically. This gesture seems intended to shift the blame for tribal depopulation away from ordinary settlers onto a military structure dependant on conflict in order to justify its existence. I don't know how familiar the average audience fifty years ago might have been with this concept, but it's what I got out of the scene and of the Stride character, consumed as he is by the idea of atoning for the sin (pride, arguably the same one that drove the concept of Manifest Destiny) of his past.

Actually, the Chiricahuas play a relatively small role in the film's narrative. The thrust of Burt Kennedy's story is that Ben Stride is on a revenge mission, going after the seven men who killed his wife in a bank hold-up. This is the first of the seven Randolph Scott Westerns filmed by the great director Budd Boetticher. Like the other films I've seen so far in this series (all but The Tall T, which also played this year's festival, unfortunately before I arrived, and Westbound). Seven Men From Now feeds on Scott's mythic image as a spotless white hat hero, in this case masking his inner struggle to live up to his own ideal. He's brought out of his shell just a bit by a Gail Russell who happens to be traveling in his direction with her forceless husband (Walter Reed). Lee Marvin plays a charismatic vulture hoping Stride will lead him to the killers' loot. Jim Kitses and other critics have marked the four Boetticher/Scott Westerns with writing credits for Kennedy as the best of the director's career, but I suspect it may be their Lone Pine locations as much as their scripts lending the distinction. The action scenes shot amongst the crags and crevices of the Alabama hills just outside town certainly bring forth Boetticher's eye for unique compositions reflecting his characters' states of mind. The inevitable final shootout is an incredibly economical slice of visual storytelling. Actually, that could describe the entire 78-minute film.

When I wasn't watching movies, I spent my time exploring the area, including the aforementioned Alabama Hills. The festival program guide encourages first-time guests to take at least one of the guided bus tours into the hills for a chance to actually stand in the spots where famous scenes were filmed. You can come any time of year and explore the area yourself, but only during the festival weekend are special explanatory placards placed among the striking boulders to make comparisons between reality and the photographic evidence easy and fun for all. I picked the Cooper Rock tour because it was said to involve the most walking (nothing onerous, but bring sunscreen) and found it an absolute delight. In keeping with the previous night's screening, I took particular note of the locations for Boetticher films. It must not have been easy for him to get a crane up through the rugged trails while shooting Ride Lonesome, but a placard showing him setting up a shot using one proves he did it. I was especially thrilled to stand in the middle of the trading camp from the beginning of Comanche Station, a spot which earlier stood in for South Asia in Kim and King of the Khyber Rifles. British India was a running theme of this particular tour, named for a perch for snipers to try to pick off Gary Cooper in Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

And if these tours, developed by the festival's late co-founder Dave Holland, have been the heart of the festival, the brand new Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History, open year-round starting this weekend, might be called the brain. Crammed with posters, props, costumes and other souvenirs from films made in the area (not just Lone Pine but greater Inyo County, including films shot in Death Valley like Greed and Zabriskie Point) and outfitted with a screening room of its own, it's the kind of place that will keep most movie buffs fascinated for hours.

Flashier items on display include the 1938 Plymouth Coupe driven by Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra and several of the original puppets used in Tremors. I think my favorite corner to explore was the one devoted to the William "Wild Bill" Wellman film Yellow Sky, including the director's chair and his original script marked up by his pencil scrawlings, like a note marking where to instruct actors to no longer wet their lips with their tongues, to indicate a change in the temperature. I suppose some might find exposure to such an artifact to be too much of a demystification of cinema. Indeed some might find the festival's emphasis on people, places and things other than films themselves to be incompatible with their brand of cinephilia. But anyone interested in the ways a natural environment might influence films and filmmakers should definitely make a detour to Lone Pine some time if they find themselves in the general vicinity.

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Posted by dwhudson at October 16, 2006 2:01 AM


Brian: "Seasoned with a few Chicanos"--I LOVE that!! Can I use it as the title of my next autobiography?

As with your previous post, you have done a masterful job of paying tribute to the territory. You have certainly made the festival sound like a welcome experience in years to come. And though I am not an avid fan of the western genre, precisely for the stereotypes they so strictly reinforce and which you have astutely noted, I'm going to do my best to follow-up on the films mentioned.

Congratulations again, Brian, on this welcome report from Lone Pine.

Posted by: Michael Guillen at October 16, 2006 10:32 AM

Michael, thanks for reading and enjoying. Absolutely use that phrase however you like, as long as I get a signed copy. And I would love to hear your reaction to Seven Men From Now in particular.

Posted by: Brian Darr at October 17, 2006 12:46 AM